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Animation Execs: Notes from a Crazy Year

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Animation Execs: Notes from a Crazy Year

***This feature originally ran in the November ’20 issue of Animation Magazine***

We caught up with some of the top international animation content execs ahead of MIPCOM Online+ to find out about what they’re looking for and how they’re faring in 2020.

Sebastian Debertin

Sebastian Debertin

Sebastian Debertin

Head of Intl. Content Acquisitions

KiKA (Children’s Channel of ARD & ZDF)

Shows that impressed me in 2020: I guess we rank it down a bit and say “great shows!” Well, what hopefully will end up in a great TV series (for HBO Max) is the Oscar-winning short Hair Love. That was one of the few animated stories that truly touched my heart. Dog Loves Books is a great series, too, which we had the pleasure to co-produce with Komixx U.K., ABC Australia and of course the BBC. Inspiring kids to read a book does not go out of fashion. We also co-produced The Lost Letter, with the talented team at Dream Logic and our friends at Lupus Films.

What I look for in an animated property: Quality, on all levels, but most of all, magic! In other words, an animated film or series should make the audience laugh, shiver, cry — make the audience feel like the hero or heroine. Ultimately, it should make the viewer happy.

Best advice: Be enthusiastic and show that you love what you are creating, producing and making. Be positive and happy. And try to really listen to the comments of the people you pitch to. And then, perhaps, they will offer you the key to make your property even a bit stronger and come to life.

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Not being enthusiastic, not really listening, but pulling off a loveless pitch in the process. Even worse: Looking at your smartphone or answering a short message or even a phone call while pitching!

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: Cooking lunch and dinner for the family has been wonderful.

What I love about working from home: Seeing a bit more of my fantastic kids growing up.

What I hate about it: I miss meeting so many nice people in person.

Best way to approach me: A short mail with a five-line pitch, a few scribbles and lots of enthusiasm is the right recipe to approach me. Email Constanze.Spilling@kika.de or Anna-Michelle.Gafron@kika.de. You should prove that you know your project, its unique selling properties as well as its audience and, also, show that you know a bit about KiKA and its programming and philosophy. Plus, you should explain why you feel the project could be a good fit for KiKA!

The animated show/movie that changed my life: I really fell in love with animation when I watched Looney Tunes and The Pink Panther cartoons when I was a child. And later, when I produced some animated shows with some of the best people in the business. Some of these shows really made it into my heart and my own Hall of Fame: Guess How Much I Love You? — my friend Suzanne Ryan at SLR Productions, from Sydney, was the one who managed to get the rights. We created a convincing concept together and ensured that this outstanding property came to life. Chloe’s Closet is a show that we created with the fantastic Mike Young and his team, a long time ago. And the series still is among the number one shows on KiKA, linear as well as online/VOD! We also celebrated Yakari being the number one hit show for 10 years now! I must say that I feel butterflies in my tummy because of the new Smurfs show we currently co-produce with our friends at IMPS, Peyo Productions, Mediatoon and TF1. Fantastic writing, and a bunch of great new female characters will bring more fun, more diversity and more entertainment than ever! I bet the show will be a new hit on KiKA in 2022 – and worldwide!

Kimberly Dennison

Kimberly Dennison

Kimberly Dennison

SVP Creative Exec, Animation & Family

Gaumont Animation 

Years on the job: Over 15 years as a development/current/creative executive … and quite a few years in production. So, pretty much my whole adult life!

Shows that impressed me in 2020: I found The Midnight Gospel to be fascinating. Outside of animation, there have been a few shows that caught my eye … but I can honestly say I never watched Tiger King!

What I look for in an animated property: I love projects that have a unique point of view and interesting, different approaches to storytelling.

Best advice for content creators: It’s a strange time in the world, keep using your art to explore and shed light on what matters to you and what’s personal to you. The world needs you!

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: The worst thing you can do is to be unprepared. The best pitches I’ve taken lately, and especially during this time, are the ones that have been well practiced and prepared.

What I love about working from home: I’m currently setting up my new home office – I finally figured out that working in a corner of my living room just wasn’t really going to cut it!

What I hate about it: I miss the in-person connection with my coworkers and friends. There’s an ease of communication that does come from seeing everyone in real life – I miss that a ton! Nothing beats chatting in the kitchen!

The animated show/movie that changed my life: I grew up in a family that has always supported and appreciated animation as a form of storytelling … so there wasn’t a singular animated show that changed me, instead they have all influenced me. But I suppose my first real influence was Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.

Nina Hahn

Nina Hahn

Nina Hahn SVP, Production & Development

Nickelodeon International

Years on the job: 15 years

Shows that impressed me in 2020: They all impressed me, as getting any show up and off the ground at any time is super impressive.

What I look for in an animated property: I always look for authenticity and strong characters. I care about diversity and I’m always on the lookout for something that will make me laugh — out loud. It has to be visually unique, creator driven, global and be a “must have” and one of a kind!

Best advice for content creators: Do your homework prior to your pitch and target your pitch appropriately to the network or streamer that would be the best home for your work. Then, think like a programmer, and ask yourself, “Where would I program this show so that it fits tonally with that network/streamer?”

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: I would rather focus on the best thing you can do: keep it simple and be able to address (in one line), “What’s my show about?”

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: Not about “I” — more about we! The best thing about COVID isn’t what we made but how we made it as a team; with creative agility, non-linear creative thinking, and the welcoming of creative risk.

What I love about working from home: Not so much about working from home, but I love that COVID has challenged creative to think, write and produce differently. Change is great fuel to creativity.

What I hate about it: Not a time to hate anything … Every cloud has a silver lining!

Best way to approach me: Not just “me” but the international team: don’t hesitate to email, call, use LinkedIn — whatever is best for you!

The animated show/movie that changed my life: Tony Collingwood’s student short film called RARG. That and everything made by the Canadian National Film Board!

Sarah Muller

Sarah Muller

Sarah Muller

Head of Independent Animation & Acquisitions

BBC Children’s

Years on the job: 10 years – in two blocks. I can’t keep away!

Shows that impressed me in 2020: Hair Love (glorious), Undone (modern and courageous) and The New Adventures of Paddington (a great reworking of a classic story).

What I look for in an animated property: Heart. Originality. Great storytelling. Humor. Contemporary resonance.

Best advice for content creators: Be really thorough with your development, make sure you’re completely happy with where you’ve got it to and never, ever think, “That’ll do!”

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Pitching’s really hard, so I’m loath to be too prescriptive. However, not being yourself is to be avoided, we want to hear your vision and why it’s important to you!

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: Animation has been the success story of COVID and everything has continued more or less as usual, but I would single out Elmo’s Playdate from Sesame Workshop as an exceptional piece of reactive content and, of course, not one made by me at all! But we were delighted to share it with our audience.

What I love about working from home: I’m looking at the garden, I’m watching the birds and my dogs are at my feet, so what’s not to love?

What I hate about it: My hair is truly hideous!

Best way to approach me: Email me at Sarah.Muller@bbc.co.uk.

The animated show/movie that changed my life: Bambi — it was the first animated movie I ever saw and we went to the cinema to see it! I couldn’t work out why all of the grown-ups were crying, but none of the kids.

Adina Pitt

Adina Pitt

Adina Pitt

VP of Content Acquisitions & Co-Pros

Cartoon Network & Boomerang

Shows that impressed me in 2020: Craig of the Creek, Blue’s Clues & You, Bluey, Total Dramarama and, of course, 90-Day Fiance!

What I look for in an animated property: I always say that I’m looking for that thing I didn’t know we wanted/needed. That said, I love to see creators’ imaginations come to life showcasing new characters, worlds, stories. Shows with heart, humor, authenticity that are visually stunning.

Best advice for content creators: Remember who your consumer is and have fun!

Worst thing you can do during the pitch: If it is going to take you 30 minutes to explain your show, then there is a problem.

Best thing I made during lockdown: I made a fantastic carne guisada with tostones. Seriously though, I made a decision to refocus my energy to search for great ideas and reconnect with people in our industry. It’s been wonderful to connect.

What I love about working from home: Being near my kids. Mind you, my kids are 17 and 19, so they may not be so thrilled to have me so close! But I love it.

What I hate about it: Having 24/7 access to my refrigerator.

Best way to approach me: Email is always a great first communication.

The show or movie that changed my life: As a child, one of my favorite memories was sitting on my mom’s white shag carpet (it was the ‘70s!), eating cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons. Scooby-Doo was by far my favorite. As an adult, I’d have to say that Finding Nemo was extraordinarily impactful to me. I had just had my second child and remember watching this exquisite movie and crying my eyes out. The unconditional love and friendships explored in this film are beautiful.

Vicky Schroderus

Vicky Schroderus

Vicky Schroderus

Executive in Charge of Intl. Co-Pros & Acquisitions

YLE Children’s Programs 

Years on the job: A lifetime!

Shows that impressed me in 2020: It’s Pony and Disrupted.

What I look for in an animated property: Outstanding stories that speak to our audience as well as unique visual looks that stand out the crowd.

Best advice for content creators: Watch, learn and analyze the shows that are popular. Then try to create something different that stands out. Put most effort into the scripting and bible, but enchant with visuals.

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Start with telling  a very long story about how you got an idea for the pitch!

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: I started to exercise regularly.

What I love about working from home: No commuting

What I hate about it: No commuting and travelling, as well as not meeting people in person.

Best way to approach me: Send me a short email.

The animated show/movie that changed my life: Too hard to choose as there are so many, and yet there are so many in the pipeline!

Linda Simensky

Linda Simensky

Linda Simensky

Head of Content

PBS KIDS

Years on the job: 17

Shows that impressed me in 2020: BlueyIt’s Pony. 

What I look for in an animated property: I love big ideas, fun and unique designs, authenticity, heart and an easy way for kids to connect to the show. I look for curriculum areas that are exactly what kids are curious about. And I like when a show doesn’t look or feel like other shows but still fits with our brand.

Best advice for content creators: Do some research on a network before pitching.

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Tell me about another network that wants the show. I will tell you to go with them.

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: Space. I cleaned out my garage.

What I love about working from home: Seeing more of my family, no morning commute.

What I hate about it: Not having enough casual time to joke around with my colleagues.

Best way to approach me: Email or at a festival.

Tara Sorensen

Tara Sorensen

Tara Sorensen

Head of Children’s Programming

Apple TV+ Years on the job: Two and a half years.

Shows that impressed me in 2020: Pixar’s Forky Asks a Question (Disney+) and Disney Channel’s The Owl House.

What I look for in an animated property: Emotional connection — key takeaway. I’m always thinking about the impact a show can have in that moment the audience connects with it, and hoping it stays with them far into their future.

Best advice for content creators: The strongest stories for me are always the ones that have some personal connection to the creator. There’s an intimacy they have with the characters and stories that’s hard to re-create without it.

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Not be familiar with the shows already on our service.

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: There’s a lot of content I’m excited about for parents and young audiences, but a few that come to mind are the Fraggle Rock: Rock On! and Helpsters Help You — short-form content which were seemingly done overnight. The passion and dedication of The Jim Henson Company and Sesame Workshop was amazing to see in motion. Because of the underlying message of each original, it felt like the world needed some Fraggle and Helpsters magic at a time of uncertainty and darkness. We were able to introduce the Fraggles to a new generation of fans while appealing to nostalgic parents and adults alike, as they showed us we could connect with friends and loved ones regardless of where we were, physically speaking. Meanwhile, the Helpsters shared creative ideas for activities to do while at home, and what to do when life doesn’t go as expected.

What I love about working from home: Getting to spend more time with my family. Eating dinner every night with my husband, Scott, and our two children, Lucas and Laurel … and having my dog at my feet for WebEx meetings.

What I hate about it: It’s hard drawing a line between work and home when your office is your home.

Best way to approach me: Through a mutual contact.

The animated show/movie that changed my life: Really Rosie and The Point.

Amanda Vaughan

Amanda Vaughan

Amanda Vaughan

Production Executive

Corus Kids

Years on the job: Two years on the programming team and three years on the original content team at Corus.

Shows that impressed me in 2020: TELETOON premiered the second season of Fresh TV’s Total Dramarama this year. The show is truly stand-out and every single episode is hilarious from beginning to end.

What I look for in an animated property: We’re currently looking for animated comedies, so humor is definitely key. I also look for strong characters that feel fresh, flawed but still loveable, and well-rounded, as well as diversity in the characters and in the stories themselves so our audiences are represented in the content on our networks. Overall, I look for series that have a unique artistic style or tone that reflects the particular creator’s vision. In other words, something that just feels new and creator-driven.

Best advice for content creators: During a pitch, I always like to ask about the relationships that the characters have with each other. It’s great to have characters that can stand alone, but when creating a pitch, make sure you spend some time on what the characters think about each other, how they interact with one another, and why they like each other or butt heads.

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Don’t hold back! I like to hear all about the world, the characters, their relationships, and how the show would look as a full season. It’s important to feel your passion and vision during the pitch.

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: Pickles! I learned how to make the brine and jar them.

What I love about working from home: I feel equally as productive at home! I have set up a comfortable office and I am thankful for video calls which have allowed me to stay connected to my colleagues and partners. Plus, I love the time I get back in my day now that I’m not commuting.

What I hate about it: I miss collaborating in person with colleagues and the ideas and rich conversations that come from hallway run-ins or coffee chats in a creative space at Corus Quay.

Best way to approach me: Through email at kidsoriginals@corusent.com.

The animated show/movie that changed my life: Disney’s Recess has always been a favorite show of mine. It really stands the test of time and is still laugh-out-loud funny today.

Alison Warner

Alison Warner

Alison Warner

Managing Director

Blue Zoo Rights

Years on the job: One year exactly!

Shows that impressed me in 2020: I was impressed to hear about the rapid response to the BBC mini-commissioning round with so many new creative ideas coming from it. Yet to see any of the shows, however.

What I look for in an animated property: A thoughtful, creator-driven idea that shows heart and integrity.

Best advice for content creators: Know exactly who you’re pitching to and why you’re pitching to that person … and state that from the onset!

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: Lose sight of the story and why the characters are meaningful.

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: We have a delightful preschool property developed in-house that we’re currently working on which I’m excited to show (hopefully soon!).

What I love about working from home: More time – my commute was a long one!

What I hate about it: Not seeing my work/industry friends and colleagues – Zoom is just not the same!

Best way to approach me: Via email alison@blue-zoo.co.uk.

The animated show/movie that changed my life: Recently, seeing the success of The Deep (the series I found while at Technicolor) – which proved that an animated adventure show works globally. Watching Bugs Bunny made me want to work in animation.

Maria Nicole Miriklis

Maria Nicole Miriklis

Maria-Nicole Miriklis

Acquisitions Manager, Childrens 

ABC Australia

Years on the job: Less than a year in this role, and our audiences have had bushfires, the pandemic and home learning to deal with in that time.

Shows that impressed me in 2020: Rather than pick from too many favorites, I’d love to call out our industry in 2020! In the case of animation, seeing whole studios pivot to working from home and creative teams reacting so quickly to create content that reflects all the challenges we’ve experienced has been super impressive this year. I’ve been very proud to be part of an industry and an organisation that puts our audiences first.

What I look for in an animated property: The ABC looks for animated content available for both our Free TV and VOD platforms in all genre that’s going to be relevant, entertain, inform and provide a variety of stories for our audiences to see themselves and their stories on screen — surprising and inspiring our audiences with characters, stories or worlds they might not have imagined.

Best advice for content creators: We look at and track content at all stages of development and production, and we always get a better sense of a concept directly from creators. However for us to seriously consider a title for acquisition, we do need to understand that the finance plan is in place and that you have a good idea of delivery dates.

Worst thing you can do during a pitch: We have a pretty broad remit for best in class series in all genres across both childrens offerings — ABC Kids (preschool) and ABC ME (school age). However, we still get a lot of pitches that emphasize the L&M plan or from series based directly on a toy line. Unfortunately, as a public broadcaster our editorial policies don’t allow us to acquire content that is explicitly linked to products.  

Best thing I made during the COVID shutdown: While all my creative and craft projects are still taunting me unfinished, my seven-year old started experimenting with sewing and I’ve tried to help her realize her ideas. We made a pretty cool headband together.

What I love about working from home: We’ve been having team check ins daily, which means that we’re working quicker. I’ve also loved the extra flexibility to schedule myself depending on when I have calls with international partners — and the ability to enjoy the outdoors more often and go on a bushwalk or to the beach!

What I hate about it: I only had six weeks in the office in my new role, before I started working from home. I would love to get to know my colleagues outside of video meetings.

Best way to approach me: You can reach us at: Acquisitions.Childrens@abc.net.au

The animated show/movie that changed my life: I discovered Hayao Miyazaki through Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind when I was a teen. Given that the story features a strong female lead rebelling with a purpose and solving climate issues with science and empathy — it really left an impact on a teenage me and hasn’t stopped being an important story despite being one of the oldest features from Studio Ghibli.

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